Enviros win one on drilling near Carbondale
CARBONDALE ” Conservationists scored a small victory Wednesday in their effort to prevent drilling for natural gas on wilderness-quality lands southwest of Carbondale.
The Interior Board of Land Appeals issued a ruling that could invalidate leases on three parcels of national forest land, totaling about 2,000 acres, Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said. The federal board issued its ruling last month but Wilderness Workshop and other parties that appealed the issuance of the leases just learned of the decision.
The leases were acquired in May 2004 by EnCana Oil and Gas USA. Environmental groups filed an appeal the following March and were joined by the governments of Pitkin County and Carbondale.
The coalition protested that leases were issued in two inventoried roadless areas. Their appeal claimed the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management failed to issue requirements that prohibited EnCana from building roads, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. They also claimed the agencies didn’t adequately assess the potential impact on lynx habitat, a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Shoemaker said the successful appeal demonstrates that federal land managers are on “frenetic pace” to promote gas exploration and production without adequately assessing if it is being allowed in the proper places.
Wilderness Workshop and its allies don’t oppose all leases of federal lands to gas companies, he said. They just want to make sure it is “done right.”
Wilderness Workshop and its allies hope this ruling forces the federal land management agencies to place greater thought into what lands are offered for lease. If not, the coalition is prepared to file more appeals.
EnCana officials weren’t immediately available for comment on the land board’s decision.
The lands in questions are located in the White River and adjacent Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. The lands were divided between Pitkin and Garfield counties. They are on the eastern fringe of the gas-rich Piceance Basin.
The leases were southwest of Carbondale, in secluded areas tucked into the high country beyond Spring Gulch cross-country ski area. They are among a network of roadless areas north and west of McClure Pass that create the largest unprotected wild area in Colorado. Conservation groups are lobbying through their Hidden Gems campaign to have those lands designated as wilderness, which would give them special protections and prohibit mechanized uses.
While gas fields in western Garfield County are among the most active in the West, no drilling has occurred yet in Pitkin County. EnCana’s interest in new leases offered in 2004 signified a growing interest in potential natural gas reserves in Pitkin County.
The successful appeal by the coalition might not stave off gas drilling forever. Conservation groups previously estimated that about 60,000 acres in a network of roadless areas north and west of McClure Pass have been leased over the years for gas exploration. They estimated that 5 percent of the White River National Forest, or about 115,000 acres, were leased as of spring 2005. That includes leases on about 37,000 acres in Pitkin County.
Nevertheless, the conservation coalition will take what victories it can get. The land board’s ruling means that the leases were unlawfully issued and they will be invalidated while they are returned to the agencies, according to Mike Chiropolos of Western Resource Advocates, the coalition’s legal counsel.
If the appeal wouldn’t have been successful and EnCana would have pursued exploration on the leases, construction traffic would have penetrated the Jerome Park area, a seven square mile piece of private ground that has been preserved by the Pitkin County Open Space Program in partnership with the North Thompson Cattle Association.
“We worked hard to protect habitat and agricultural values at Spring Gulch, while providing a permanent home for the popular Nordic skiing area there,” said Pitkin County Open Space Director Dale Will in a prepared statement. “The proposed gas leases would have undermined this local investment, and Pitkin County is pleased that the appeal was successful.”
In addition to Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates Pitkin County and Carbondale the parties that appealed were the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association and the Wilderness Society.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.